This month, Picador is re-issuing Graham Swift’s Waterland to mark the novel’s twenty-fifth birthday. It seems reductive of this wonderful and complex book to summarise its plot, but its main storyline is that Tom Crick, fifty-three, head of history at a south-east London comprehensive, is cracking up as his unhappily childless wife’s behaviour grows ever stranger; she eventually steals a baby. In class ‘Cricky’ is supposed to be covering the French Revolution, but increasingly he is diverting his pupils into the history of the Fens and tales from his own childhood and adolescence spent there – featuring a murder, an unwanted pregnancy, and a suicide. These cranky digressions are providing the headmaster with the ammunition he needs to force early retirement upon Crick, and to slash the school’s history teaching to a bare minimum. History, the headmaster tells Crick, is ‘a rag-bag of pointless information’.
Upon its publication in 1983, Waterland was celebrated as a brilliant evocation of place (though Swift had never lived in the Fens). But it is also a thorough, subtle reflection on the nature of history (though Swift had never been a historian). It took a non-practitioner to delineate the crises